The Importance of Ethnographic Research in Product Design

There's a reason why now, more than ever, companies are desperate to hire anthropologists. It's not hard to understand why. In a word where everything is increasingly connected, everything is measured, and 97% of companies are investing in big data and AI, a question emerges. How do we consume, parse, and contextualize these massive datasets in a way that productively advances the goals the data was gathered to advance?

 Us anthropologists have been grappling with quantitative data and ways to make the best use of it for decades now, and we certainly understand the importance of context in analytical data. In anthropology, we have an entire system for contextualizing massive amounts of data about human behavior. We call it the ethnography.

So, what is an ethnography?

At its most basic form, an ethnography is a systematic representation of a culture. How is that relevant to product development? Well, culture is everywhere. It shapes how we perceive ourselves and the world, and how we act even when no one else is around. There is a culture around e-commerce that shifts as you examine different demographics, each with their own values and norms as they specifically apply to shopping online.

Like the traditional anthropologist may seek to understand the difference in diet between a young man and an elderly woman in a given geographic culture, companies like Amazon seek to understand their customers as pockets over distinct and overlapping demographic groups rather than an average of statistical data points. Analyzing the funnel for middle aged women shopping for jewelry on Amazon is going to yield wildly different insights than someone from Generation Z paying for a Twitch subscription.

Ethnographic research is not qualitative research.

Even companies that offer ethnographic research as a service get one fundamental thing wrong.  They view an ethnography as qualitative research, or as the other side of the coin to more traditional, quantitative research.  Ethnographic research is actually both sides of the coin simultaneously.  Like many things in anthropology, it is holistic. It understands that qualitative and quantitative data are not at odds with each other, but pieces of a single puzzle that each contribute valuable insights to understanding it as a whole.

In fact, another key aspect of ethnography is that it is multifactorial. That means that it incorporates multiple ways of collecting data - both qualitative and quantitative - to reach a conclusion. If the research doesn't do that, it may be useful research, but it isn't an ethnography.

Ethnographic research is field based.

In anthropology, that means getting out and studying people where they actually live, breathe, and work. For user experience researchers, that could include user interviews, or user journey snapshots, or heatmap data. But for it to be a true ethnography it must also be personalized: the researchers must make direct contact with the people they are studying at some point in the ethnographic process.

This contact is important, because when you really get to know sometime, you start to understand them in ways that may not even understand themselves. Ken Anderson, who conducts ethnographic research for Intel, explains it like this:

"Intel can analyze the latest buying patterns and customer surveys for useful data. But people often can’t articulate what they’re looking for in products or services. By understanding how people live, researchers discover otherwise elusive trends that inform the company’s future strategies. With smartphones, for example, we can contrast the technology perspectives of teenagers, who have used cell phones since they were in elementary school, with those of older generations, who came to them only after becoming proficient with PCs. Our job as anthropologists is to understand the perspective of one tribe, consumers, and communicate it to another, the people at Intel. Our experiences in both worlds make this translation possible. Ethnography has proved so valuable at Intel that the company now employs two dozen anthropologists and other trained ethnographers, probably the biggest such corporate staff in the world."

Ethnographic research is inductive and dialogic.

An ethnography isn't a quick process. Rather than starting from a hypothesis and coming up with experiments to prove a hypothesis, like you see with the scientific method, you start with an open mind and as you accumulate more information and context you begin to recognize emergent patterns which may grow into theories. This is a very valuable lesson for user experience researchers. Treating a UX test like a scientific experiment where you seek to prove a hypothesis will blind you to the potential subtle details of your research.

Dialogic means that the findings inform the process of the research as it is occurring. That means that, as the study unfolds and the ethnographer understand their subjects better, testing and data gathering methods may change and evolve. Here too UX researchers can gain a valuable insight: sometimes the best information a test can give you is that it was the incorrect test to run.

Ethnographic research keeps us from being lazy.

If you made it this far in the article, you're probably thinking, "Geez, this ethnography business actually sounds like a lot of hard work!"

It definitely is. Conducting a true ethnography means you are building a system to understand your users better. Building good systems takes a lot of mental effort, and oftentimes requires input from people across a variety of disciplines and levels of insight into the problems they seek to address. That's going back to the whole holistic aspect of it.

But the most valuable work we do is often challenging. Running a heatmap study on your landing page and using the results to optimize it is a lot easier than building a whole system for contextualizing it. But if you do the former, how do you really know if the conclusions you draw are valid? And that brings us to one of the main benefits of ethnographic research:

Ethnographic research ensures our data is useful.

Throwing Google Analytics on a page doesn't do anything if you never pull up your dashboard and use it. Ethnographic research ensures we're using as many of the right tools at our disposal as possible to get the best conclusions we can. Its hard, but in the end it's better for us, it's better for the people we serve, and, perhaps most important, it forces us to humanize the data sets and understand that real people face the consequences of the design decisions we make. And by humanizing the people we study, well, it also makes us more human.

Ethnographic research humanizes the researcher.

Rick Damaso, the Lead Researcher at Key Lime Interactive, says a good ethnographic research has three superpowers: empathy, listening, and curiosity.

  • Empathy: Ethnographic research asks you, over and over again, to put yourselves in the shoes of someone else. This is a psychological phenomenon called empathy that's extremely important for social animals like us humans. In a society where prevalent technology makes it easy to experience "compassion fatigue", practices that reinforce our empathy are extremely important.

  • Listening: It's that one skill that, if mastered transforms all of your relationships, both career and personal. Communication is another fundamental aspect of what it means to be a social animal, and ethnographic research trains us to be good listeners by being attentive to the details of what people say.

  • Curiosity: A curious mind makes for a great UX researcher as well as a great ethnographer. Without curiosity, how can you think outside of the box enough to imagine how things might be difference? Curiosity is one of the key skills to being able to formulate tests and experiments. Ethnographic research trains your curiosity by confronting you with perspectives you've never even imagined.

So, how do you get started doing ethnographic research?

A good place to start is learning more about ethnographies. Hammersley and Atkinson's Ethnography: Principles in Practice is a great introduction to ethnography that was just updated the 4th edition in 2019. Once you feel more comfortable with the concept, it's time to start formulating a plan for how to conduct your ethnographic research. Remember, you're building a system. A good place to start is defining the people you seek to understand, the data gathering resources you have available to you, but remember not to get so attached to your plan that your research becomes set in stone. Remember, we're striving a a dialogic process. And that brings me to the best piece of advice I've found for starting the ethnographic process:

Start by identifying your biases.

What assumptions do you have about the situation, the people you seek to understand, or the results you expect to find? We may not always be able to fully identify our biases, but starting from that point puts us in a great place as ethnographers to listen and practice empathy and curiosity.

Maybe an ethnography is not what you strive for, and that's okay! Understanding the ethnographic processes gives us valuable tools to use in every aspect of user experience research.